If you’re a homeowner, property taxes may be high on your list of living expenses, so it makes sense to seek out whatever exemptions you may qualify for under state law. If you’re a practicing rabbi, New York State law entitles you to a “clergy exemption” in the amount of $1,500 off your property tax assessment. But word has it that homeowners in Nassau County who duly received semicha and are engaged in various rabbinic activities are suddenly being denied the reduction by county officials unless they are employed as full-time pulpit rabbis or rebbeim.
For well over a century, New York’s Real Property Tax Law (RPTL) has offered an exemption for clergy. Section 460(1) provides that “real property owned by a minister of the gospel, priest or rabbi of any denomination, an actual resident and inhabitant of this state, who is engaged in the work assigned by the church or denomination of which he or she is a member…shall be exempt from taxation to the extent of fifteen hundred dollars.” Homeowners have to apply for the exemption at the beginning of each year with their county assessment bureau.
In Nassau County – where low assessment ratios mean this exemption can go as far as cancelling out entire line items on the property tax bill – rabbis employed in chinuch, organizational work, part-time positions, and volunteer activities were routinely granted the discount. This year, however, it seems that county officials have imposed a new interpretation on the statute, deciding that only individuals whose “principal occupation” is that of a pulpit rabbi or rebbe are entitled to the exemption. The law itself does not contain any such requirement. In fact, an older version of the statute specified that it applied to “a minister of the gospel or priest who is regularly engaged in performing his duties as such.” Notably, that language (“regularly engaged”) was removed when the law was amended in 1916, while the reference to rabbis was added.
As families who have crunched the numbers before buying a home well know, where you live can make a huge difference in your property tax bill. Property tax rates differ substantially among various school districts within Nassau County, not to mention among different counties within New York State. The tax is typically calculated as a percentage of a home’s assessed value, which in turn is calculated as a percentage of a home’s market value – in other words, what the home is actually worth if it were to be sold. Each county applies its own assessment ratio to calculate the “assessed value,” which could change annually. These assessed vales could be anywhere from 100% of market value – such as in Monroe County, home of the Jewish community of Rochester – to under 1% in Nassau County. While the $1,500 rabbinic discount might make only a very small dent in a Rochester family’s property tax bill (because the assessed value can be the same as the market value), in Nassau County it could nearly or even completely negate the assessed value.
The clergy discount is one of a number of exemptions available to New York homeowners. These vary widely in their method of calculation – veterans, for example, are entitled to a 15% reduction of their property tax bill. (Interestingly, in that instance, owning a home in Monroe County could potentiality result in a greater benefit than in Nassau.)
Perhaps because of how impactful the clergy exemption is on the county’s property tax payload, Nassau officials have decided to take a hard line, denying many applications which in past years may have been granted. These reportedly include those submitted by yeshiva and day School limudei kodesh teachers who have a secondary source of income, menahalim, kashruth supervisors, and even part-time pulpit rabbis who make themselves available for weddings, funerals, and other lifecycle events.
And what about frum women working in chinuch or other religious capacities who have a formal certification and specialized religious training – without the “rabbi” title? Since Orthodox Judaism does not ordain women as rabbis but does allow them to engage in many of the same Torah-oriented occupations as men, female Jewish homeowners in such roles should arguably be entitled to the clergy exemption as well. While precedent has yet to be set in the courts regarding this particular exemption, the concept of function being more important than form means they have a strong legal argument, one that was advanced decades ago in the context of parsonage for woman with a bona fide certification who perform religious functions such as davening with students, teaching limudei kodesh, and providing religious counseling.
Homeowners whose clergy exemption requests were denied this year can file an administrative appeal (AR-3) with the Nassau County Assessment Review Commission. The good news is that the law is on their side – the attempt to read additional requirements into the statute will probably not hold up in court, if litigation ensues. Appealing administratively is a relatively simple process, but appeals must be filed by strict deadlines in order to be considered.